I was in india from Jan 16-Feb 26, 2010 and traveled alone. A few months before I left I spammed my address book asking for advice, and advice came, and some of it was helpful. It therefore seems only fair to generate my own india advice document, and also so self-indulgent, how can I resist.
India is a fabulous place to travel. Exotic and second world as hell while english is prevalent. Everything from street eats to domestic airfare is embarrassingly cheap and the purchasing power this affords the westerner is intoxicating. India spans an endless array of cultures (usually militating against each other) and landscapes. Most of the country is vegetarian and the food is tasty. Public transport is ubiquitous and either easy or exciting, sometimes both. Calcutta prostitutes have the lowest incidence of AIDS of any major city in asia.
I flew into Mumbai and out of Delhi and had vague plans but basically made it up as I went along. This strategy generates a steady stream of obstacles, as I was constantly orchestrating transport and hotels, but allows for spontaneity, without which I don't feel like there's any possibility for adventure. Also it's very satisfying to learn your way around the system and more competently and efficiently execute your ideas as you go along. Balancing numerous destinations, variables, and hurdles as you compete for the best rooms and train seats is very rewarding when it goes well.
Regarding packing, anything you forget you can buy in major india cities. The exception to this is specific bathroom products - for example I like curel lotion and this is not availble in india, I was forced into vaseline intensive care which is so oily. But what are you going to do, pack six weeks' worth of lotion? For me that's a lot of lotion. Anyway the items I found indispensable were headlamp, mosquito repellent, and mosquito net. Even if you haven't replaced toilet paper with baby wipes in your day-to-day life as I have, you will do well to carry them at all times in India. Remember that areas at altitude require warm clothes, though you can always buy them there.
I used a PacSafe travel pouch that I really liked; it was where I kept my spare cash and alternative plastic and gave me peace of mind when I was away from my hotel. It doubled as a luggage chain on trains but I will bring a chain or cord designed for this purpose on future expeditions - you want to be able to sleep or restroom on the train without worry that your bags will be gone when you return to your seat. Travel wallet is in my mind a necessity. [zo.la/me/robbery.html] I brought two - one that wraps around your waist that I kept in the PacSafe, and one that attaches to your belt that I carried all the time at first and while in transit throughout. The wraparound device is time-tested but I don't like the way it feels and accessing it is annoying. The belt loop pouch that I used is comfortable and secure, easier to deal with than the wrap-around, but is dorky. ATMs are not everywhere but they're in most places, I didn't take any traveller's cheques (does anyone still use traveller's cheques?). Take all your credit cards because the only ATM in the town you're in will like some cards but not others. I carried the lonely planet and the rough guide planning to ditch the lesser one but ended up carrying them both because I felt the information was complementary and I like to carry heavy bags. If you don't, lonely planet is superior.
I did not bring my mobile phone but purchased one as soon as I arrived. Like everything else it was astonishingly cheap and arranging hotel reservations, calling travel agents, connecting with other foreigners I met along the way and conducting whatever business needed to get done while traveling would have been harder without it. A no-brainer in my mind. I got 500 rupees of pay-as-you-go airtime and used about half of it. Service is usually decent but dropped calls, poor reception, etc is common. Dialing is also a challenge. If you can't get a number to work, try adding a zero in front of it.
I also brought a laptop and purchased a Reliance Netconnect USB broadband stick from a small store in Mumbai. Most people don't need or want this degree of connectivity but if you do, talk to me about the nuts and bolts of arranging it. Wifi is rare in India but there are internet cafes all over the place.
You need to get a visa to go to india. It's easy and fast, I did mine by mail with FedEx tracking.
You need to get some vaccinations, see a travel doc. I took the treatment for malaria in case I got it (I didn't and got bit at least one hundred thousand times because I foolishly underused DEET) but did not take prophylaxis. I did take prophylaxis for traveller's diarrhea - rifaximin 200 mg twice daily. It's impossible to know if it "worked" but I didn't have any GI problems and ate everything in my path, especially food prepared by street cart vendors.
I bought medical evacuation insurance from SOS travel. $350 for 6 weeks.
The discomforts and aggravations you encounter traveling in india as in any second world country are legion but, at least in retrospect, minor. The most significant from my perspective is the relentless assault on your wallet by vendors and touts. When someone approaches you in India they are trying to sell you something. They don't care where you are from or how long you've been in India, they are never just trying to be helpful, they never have a special anything to offer, it is always a wallet assault. I was polite at first but by the end was completely ignoring these people. This is not easy, especially for someone as overflowing with ebullience as I am, but pretending they are not there is the only way to get them to leave you alone. Anything you say to them invites more touting. Anything.
You will be overcharged by 5 and 10 fold routinely compared to locals, but this always amounts to small change in your currency. I avoid haggling and am happy to pay the extra 50 cents most of the time though it's always case-by-case. You will also have to come up with a strategy for dealing with beggars. They are everywhere but I was expecting worse. I never gave them money no matter how impressive their disabilities, often offered food (often carried portable foods for this purpose) which was universally met with dissatisfaction.
I stayed mostly in mid-range hotels, generally between R1000 and R2000 per night, which priced me out of the budget accommodation concerns like hot water and bedbugs. Unless you are in a western-style place where prices are posted in dollars, hotels are comparatively uncomfortable but usually adequate. College-age backpackers generally spend around R500 per night. Dorm-style hosteling we grew to love while seeing europe on a shoestring is not prevalent in India. Occasionally I was in flophouses for R150 and they were impressively bleak, as in, you don't want any part of your body to touch any part of the room, including the bed.
I took 2/3 of my meals from street vendors, the food is good, fresh, and basically free. Restaurant food varies in how much better it is than street food but is reliable in how much poorer the service is. The service in Indian restaurants ranges from poor to incomprehensibly awful, and my experience is that the more expensive the restaurant the worse the service. I went to the most expensive venue in Mysore (spent an extravagant US$20) with a group of 8 and after 20 minutes we were given the opportunity to order drinks, and we ordered a round of cocktails. 30 minutes later we were still waiting for our drinks. It's common. Lower your expectations.
Many Indians speak some english but nobody speaks english as their first language. I was impressed at how hard it was to communicate - besides the variable language barrier there is often a significant cultural barrier that I was unprepared for and trying to get things done, especially over the phone, even with people who speak excellent english, was often difficult and occasionally infuriating. I wish someone had told me that the phrases "no," "I don't understand," and especially "I don't know" are not used in India. Instead, the approach is to talk around the issue or make up an answer. Furthermore, recognize Indian Time, which is the practice of underestimating how long something will take, 300%-500%. So if someone says 5 minutes expect it to take 20. I'll leave it for you to grapple with the head bob.
Organizing and executing travel within the country will occupy much of your attention. Buying the infamous Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle to get around is a popular, adventurous option that I passed on. See Kirsten Johnson's advice in the, um, appendix if you're interested in this route. You can also hire a driver to cart you around the country. While this seems more repulsive than a package tour, it's very cheap and has many benefits.
Air travel on one of the half-dozen domestic airlines (Kingfisher, SpiceJet, JetLite, Jet Airlines, Deccan Air, there are others) is crazy cheap, even if you book same-day. A typical choice is between a 20 hour train ride for 20 bucks or a 90 minute flight for 60 bucks. There are a number of kayak-like search engines that don't work well, google india flights. You cannot enter the departures area at airports without an itinerary - print it out at one of the ubiquitous computer places or present yourself to the carrier's window facing the outside of the airport and they'll print one for you.
India rail is unparalleled in the world in its scope and functions with impressive reliability. You can get a railpass which has a number of advantages but is probably only worth it for visits longer than a few months though I don't really know this because I didn't buy one. Online booking [irctc.co.in] seems terrific but the system wouldn't accept any of my credit cards; I had the sense that American Express would work if you have one. I often used ixigo.com to check out the train options, its interface is much easier to deal with than the irctc site. If getting to the train station is convenient, this is the best option because you can there take advantage of the so-called tourist quota to secure otherwise unavailable seats. Alternatively you can use an agent who will charge a fee, usually around R100 per ticket. The nuances of ticketing availability are too complex for westerners to understand but know that agents have tricks to get tickets that you wouldn't be able to get yourself. I used agents more as I went along, and sometimes you have no choice as the train station is in a different city than where you're staying. Getting a ticket at the train station can be a challenge. First you must find the right set of windows from which to buy your ticket, the particular window depending on a number of factors (same day vs. advance, tourist vs. regular, there are other mysterious criteria) . The best strategy is to find the enquiries window and just tell that person what you want to do, she will tell you where to go. After waiting in several lines to find out that you're still at the wrong window, you will be ready to succeed, which can only occur once you have achieved a sufficient level of frustration. Be warned that as frustration mounts you may have a harder time restraining yourself against the curiously uncivilized tendency of Indians to ignore a window queue and just stick their face in and ask questions. When you finally find the right teller and secure a ticket, take note of the coach, which is your assigned train car. This is usually posted on the outside of the car, but the trains are long and it's annoying to wander around the platform looking for your car while carrying your luggage, knowing that the train will start rolling any moment; fortunately if you ask someone on the platform where your car is they will be happy to point you in the wrong direction. Trains fill up, don't assume you'll be able to buy a ticket same-day. I bought a ticket on the wait-list a few times and got a seat every time. There are a number of classes, I used them all, see your guidebook. You will be issued a seat in the lowest class unless you specify. Keep your luggage under watch or chained down, preferably both.
Long bus rides ( > 8 hours, including and especially the poorly-named "sleepers") are miserable and should be avoided at all costs, but cannot be avoided. You will not enjoy being squished into a seat meant for someone half your size, your organs gradually loosening from their attachments as you traverse the awful Indian roads which are really occasional patches of pavement in between craters and gravel, your bladder and bowels exploding as the mesmerizingly horrible hindi movie blares in your ear, the audio lagging 3 seconds behind the video, more and more people packed on the bus until there's no way it can hold more, and then it picks up a dozen more, the reverberating assault of horns continuous from every direction, the incessant slamming on brakes and swerving making you wonder whether diarrhea or vomiting will come first, the gripping fear that an accident is imminent gradually replaced by the hope for an accident to end the torture. These bus rides, however, make the destination so much sweeter and give you that backpacker sense of accomplishment missing after a relatively tranquil and comfortable train ride to say nothing of arriving by plane, which really feels like cheating.
You'll arrange private busses with travel agencies. For government busses, when you get to the bus station, just yell your destination at someone and they'll tell you which bus to get on. I found it helpful to write down the name of the destination and show them because my pronunciation sometimes didn't do the trick, and remember no one will say I don't understand, they'll just direct you to the wrong bus. I refused to lose sight of my bags and this caused problems. I ended up buying two seats whenever possible. Another tactic I used on government busses is to give the person sitting on the second seat on the left (the driver is on the right, the first seat on the left is for the ticketeer) 100 rupees for their seat. This gives you the crucial front-facing view and the space in the front of the bus for your backpack. Do not pass on bathroom breaks.
I arrived in Mumbai, supposedly the largest city in India. Bombay features all the poverty and chaos you expect and walking around the city, darting in and out of alleys, alleys of alleys, rooftops and crumbling buildings was what I most remember. I saw few sights but watched high court in session (fun), walked along chowpatty beach (mostly teenagers acting out their exquisite drama) and toured the Dharavi Slum with Reality Tours (recommended). Victoria Terminus train station is the busiest in Asia and worth checking out; I stayed in the nearby Traveller's Inn, which was hard to get to from the airport because no Taxi drivers knew where it was but I appreciated being away from the tourist center of Colaba and that depressing row of shlock-hawkers requisite in every backpacker area. Bombay didn't leave a strong impression, I don't think it's a must-see if you come in/out of the other major cities, but certainly offers the Indian overpopulation paradigm.
I flew to Goa. In Panjim I stayed with a friend's father for a night which was cool, we toured the nearby Portuguese churches which are impressive. I got my first sense of how splintered India is as a country as locals are brown but identify themselves with their colonizers much more than the country under whose dominion they now live. The next two nights I stayed on Mandrem Beach and wasn't into it. The Goan beaches are like all the other second world backpacker beaches, gorgeous but inferior to the destinations in Mexico and Thailand. Lots of yoga and ayurvedic this and that, all glazed with that tourist-scam sheen. I fled to a nearby town 6 kilometers inland free of tourists called Margao that I really liked, just because it was a normal-sized normal town that I had fun exploring. But if you want a nice beach to collect rays or loud bars featuring louder germans, Goa is the place.
Hampi is also a tourist mecca but has more to recommend it, with impressive temple ruins set amidst massive boulder formations. Everyone now stays 1 km away from the center in an area known as Viru across a river that is really more of a big stream. Viru felt a bit like Goa, 100% backpacker economy, and they have this hilarious scam where you have to pay R20 to take a dingee across the river that could be bridged with 15 strategically-placed large rocks. Israelis were everywhere and lots of signs were in Hebrew. Despite this, I had a memorable day in Hampi chasing monkeys up boulder formations and trying to exit the city as a huge festival rolled into town.
From Hampi I went to Bangalore, a huge city of no interest to the tourist but I needed a break from tourists and stayed for several nights in something like a boutique hotel near 100 foot road, away from the suffocatingly congested center. Bangalore is the IT hub of India and there are lots of young people dressed and behaving like westerners. I saw a Hindi rock show and did a lot of urban exploration.
Mysore is a terrific city where I also lingered. There is a huge yoga contingency there but it's mostly focused on the outskirts of town; I stayed at a fab place in the center called Parklane Hotel. There's an impressive palace, a cool market, a sacred hill with great views, and a rail museum that are all worthwhile but what made Mysore so appealing is its perfect weather (altitude) and the thick local culture that pays minimal attention to the tourists. I saw my first Kabadi match and ate from my favorite street vendors in Mysore. Try the gobi manchurian, god is that shit good.
Most people go from Mysore to Ooty, which is supposed to be great, I skipped Ooty and headed back to the coast at Mangalore. There are no tourist activities in Mangalore but I got a lot out of my brief visit walking through the ancient, narrow streets around the old port. These alleys are gross domestic product in motion, packed with a zillion people keeping the gears of a zillion industries moving. I accidentally walked through a huge private christian high school with thousands of uniformed students doing the high school student thing, which was also cool, I'm not sure exactly why. The taxi ride to the Mangalore airport showcases the impressive tropical but curvy topography of the area.
I flew into Cochin, in Kerala. Everyone goes apeshit over Kerala, I have to say I don't see the big deal. Cochin, an historic city on the coast, is a ripping hot tourist trap. I enjoyed my six hour walk of the area (especially Jew Town), the confluence of successive architectural styles is interesting, but my favorite activity in Cochin was finding the YMCA and lifting weights with the extremely skinny locals; first time I've ever been the strongest guy in the gym. The tourist activity du jour is taking a boat through the backwaters, in fact you can't see the word Kerala without the word backwaters close by. I didn't do it. I'm sure they're lovely but the vibe was tourist performative.
After 2 nights in Cochin I needed to get out of the heat and took an epic 4-government-bus adventure through the Kerala hill tea plantations (gorgeous) and up the western ghats of Tamil Nadu to the town of Kodaikonal. I stayed at the Hostel which was solid, fireplace in the room, yes. There's trekking and other nature activities that I skipped, I just enjoyed the views and mountain air and particularly friendly locals. There's something about elevation that makes people friendly. And makes people bake bread. Great bakeries in Kodaikonal. They also make local chocolate. Why more towns don't make chocolate is beyond me, who can resist chocolate?
Another strenuous trip back down to the plains and the ancient, very busy, very hot city of Madurai where I stayed for only a few hours but got to see the enormous temple there. Cool but not that cool. I had seen enough temples by this point. The most memorable thing about Madurai was the flophouse I rented for six hours (R150/night) just outside the train station. It was so shitty they were debating whether or not to allow me in. The pail that I used to pour water over me during the bucket-and-pail shower was dirty enough that I'm not sure I came away cleaner after bathing.
Overnight train to Pondicherry, a French town on the east coast. This place was dominated by middle-aged French people and is mildly interesting but unless you are into French is not of particular note. Highlight was eating pain du chocolate. There's a huge ashram there that attracts ashram-y people and a new age town called Auroville nearby that I avoided. Pondicherry is a few hours south of Madras (Chennai), a massive city that I drove through but did not stop on my way to the airport. Looked like a massive Indian city.
I flew from Chennai to Calcutta, my favorite of the major indian cities. Calcutta is like Bombay but with more feeling. The locals (all 20 million of them) seemed more playful and were certainly more diverse. Relatively few tourists, or perhaps they were all trampled or so covered in soot that I couldn't see them. I stayed at Sunflower Guest House which I recommend overall and especially for the manually controlled elevator. Like most other destinations but especially in Kolkata, the most fruitful aspect of the 3 days I spent there was walking around the neighborhoods between 5p and 9p. The walk up Free School Road left me feeling like I had seen a dozen full-length movies in a row, and I had already been in India for a month by this point and thought I was inured to its exotic aspects. The buildings in Calcutta, like Mumbai, are colonial and decaying but the dilapidation is hauntingly beautiful here; the challenge is to divert your attention from all the incredible things happening on the ground and remember to look up at the spectacular crumbling architecture. The most notable sights were the outdoor market under the Howra Bridge and the Park Street Cemetery. I went into the New Market to find the Jewish bakery and, hardened as I was a month into my journey to touts, I almost left before finding it because the harassment was so horrible. At one point I was literally being followed by 10 of them.
Darjeeling is at the peak of a 6000 foot hill, its main attraction being the mountain air and views, it is a welcome relief from the sultry lowlands. It's well touristed but tourists are a small component of the vibe, at least in early February. Arrival is by jeep only, and can be either shared (R100) or single (R1000); the road is scenic but is of such horrible quality it's hard to enjoy. I stayed at Deckeling Hotel which deserves its fine reputation. The way the city has been constructed to accommodate its topography makes for fascinating (and somewhat strenuous) strolls in addition to the insane vistas from every corner of the town. The zoo is lame but the himalayan mountain institute, inside the zoo, is kinda cool. I didn't do the tiger hill sunrise thing but I'm sure just the pain of waking up in the freezing 4am would make the view worthwhile. I didn't do a trek. There was a notable freedom from touts and beggars in Darjeeling. The town completely closes down at around 9 and there are no street lights. I didn't notice that the tea was any better than any other tea.
I do not recommend the bus trip from Siliguri to Patna. 28 hours after leaving Darjeeling I arrived at Varanasi. The rickshaw from the train station actually hit several other auto-rickshaws, a cycle-rickshaw, a truck, a cow, and knocked over a bicyclist on the way to Godaulia but this appears to be normal in Varanasi. If you stay in Godaulia, and you probably will, note that most places on the river cannot be approached directly by vehicle and you will have to walk. Navigating the spooky/magical lanes of the old city trying to find your guest house feels like you have been placed into a medieval strategy animation game, blasting away ever-increasing numbers of touts as you ascend to higher levels. The color of your skin, bewilderment on your face, and large backpack will attract more of them than you can say no to, and not saying no naturally means yes. Of course saying no also means yes. Try to smile knowing that when you have reached the required level of frustration, you will find your guest house. I stayed at Alka, which is well positioned and has a sweet terrace as well as helpful staff and unexceptional but clean rooms.
Unless you take up residence in Varanasi, and probably even then, you will not get a handle on the incredible maze of Godaulia alleyways. To explore confidently, familiarize yourself with the ghat nearest to your hotel and when you're lost, just head for the river and walk along the ghats until you find your place. The ghats in general and the burning ghats in particular are a compelling enough spectacle to outpace the competing spectacle of tourists and touts. The hawkers here resort to a new low in abusing tourists' good nature: they extend their hand to you, offering a handshake. As you despise them for putting you in a position of ignoring the friendliest of all gestures, keep in mind that you would do the same, imagine the shelter they probably call home, tell yourself that tourists exploit much more than they are exploited, but it won't help, you will still hate them. Exploring the northern ghats near the bridge, and walking around after 9 or 10 provides a peaceful alternative to what otherwise feels like another colonial invasion played out one tourist vs. tout at a time. Public toileting, common throughout India, is particularly popular in Varanasi, so if you've been waiting for the right time to try it, this is your place.
Agra is a decentralized smoggy mess of a city flooded with tourists. I saw all the sites and then some in 18 hours; can't imagine staying much longer than that. The mosque and market around it, as well as the red fort are worth seeing, if only for the very playful monkeys, the other secondary sights are meh. I I stayed at the creatively named Tourist Rest House, which is basic and formulaic but the formula works. They had true, fast wi-fi when the electricity was on, which was a particular thrill. Note the Taj is closed on Fridays.
Bundi is a minor valley oasis painted in pastel colors. At a population of around 100,000 it feels like a quiet village built around an incredible 400 year old castle that has been essentially ignored. The castle in turn was built inside a 700 year old fort which has been completely ignored. If these structures existed in the States, they would be cleaned up, roped off, sterilized, and protected. In Bundi, there is a single guard sleeping in the castle's main courtyard and 500 monkeys looking after the crumbling monolith, which feels like it should be in a vampire hamlet at the bottom of the sea. The tourists are relatively few but tend to pack suitcases rather than backpacks; the town is semi-dry and where booze is available it is served covered in tin foil as a gesture of concealment. All of the hotels and
"restaurants" are family-run converted homes. I was in R&R mode and stayed 3 nights in the comparatively upscale Haveli Braj Bhushanjee where I was well cared for by their diligent Brahmen staff and patriarch, the Bundi sage and general badass Mukesh. The social/backpacker place is Rainbow Heritage House. Do not attempt to reach the waterfall at Rameshwar without a guide–there are a dozen turns over 20km and not a single sign.
I was prepared to be unimpressed with Delhi, as my spiritual center was already shifting to eastern standard time. But all the busses and rickshaws run on compressed natural gas, wow, and the dazzling subway, bow wow. I saw exactly no sights in Delhi but immediately headed for the old city and even after six weeks of exploring street markets, I was delighted by the massive Chondi Chowk and even more so by the ancient muslim alleyway markets around the impressive mosque, Jama Masjid. I stayed at the comfortable, well-located, expensive Yatri Haouse. Similarly, if you're into a western-style workout, Fitness First in Connaught Square is almost posh, at almost western-style prices. The new city area is clean, modern, not traversable by foot, and boring.
Below are the replies to the spam I sent out prior to my trip. Good times are in store for you. A billion people can't be wrong.
Varanasi: Where the Ganges River is BLACK - officially the craziest city I have EVER visited.
Dehli: Wish I had visited the Taj but was to annoyed by all the tourists
Dharamsala: where Dali Lama lives
Goa: I think this is still a haven for traveling hipsters - haven't visited but would like to on next trip
Kerela State: haven't visited but hear it is fantastic & clean!
Gujarat State: haven't visited but would like to on next trip
Want to share this www.jdc.org—india.aspx in case you are interested in adding the Indian Jewish community to your trip itinerary. (Please do not judge web page - this is the section I am currently overhauling.) If you are interested, let me know and I will contact the country director for specifics. You can even get really jewventurous and check out Mumbai's JCC. Just think, this could be you, www.jdc.org—worldwide-programs-template.aspx
I would certainly check out Agra + the Taj. You can skip New Delhi, it's pretty awful and polluted. If you do end up north, I would recommend Jaisalmer and Amritsar as my top two cities, Jodhpur as my #3, and Udaipur as my #4. If you don't mind spending ~$100-150 a flight, you can fly around India rather easily by taking the various equivalents of JetBlue, like Kingfisher, Indigo, Jet, SpiceJet, Deccan Air, etc.
Within Bombay, the places to are:
* get a lunch in the sea lounge in the Taj Hotel (though I went there pre-terrorist attack, not sure what state it is in)
* check out Victoria station (it has some indian name now). Try to get there during rush hour. This is another place that may have changed post-terrorist attack.
* stroll on the queen's necklace at sunset, finishing at Chowpatty beach. Take in the craziness, but you might want to go light on the food.
* people also suggest elephanta island; I was underwhelmed. It takes about 1 hour each way, and has about 45 minutes worth of things to see. Though they are very nice thousand year old stone carvings.
* hang around the maidan on a Sunday - enjoy the cricket matches
* foodwise, I ate at:
* Trishna - just unbelievably outstanding. Strongly recommend
* Sea Loungue
* FYI: sundays are much quieter than the rest of the week. If you want to avoid the craziness, that's when to go. If you seek craziness, that's when to not go.
I would also strongly, strongly, strongly recommend you read Maximum City by Seketu Mehta before going to Bombay. It will make your stay there infinetely more rewarding (and is just an all around awesome book).
Also, regarding northern india; I would strongly, strongly, strongly recommend going to Jaisalmer. I had one of the best days in my life there. You should check if you can score flights, it's a long train ride otherwise.
In general Rajastan is really nice, much cleaner than the rest of India (and the people are beautiful). I also very much enjoyed Jodphur. The temples were really out of sight in general, so I would make time for Mount Abu and Ranakpur.
Amritsar was also an amazing experience. It's rare to be in a religious place where the people are so friendly and accepting - and it is also wonderful to be in a place where people take their religion so seriously.
hi reuben, i will email you later, or you can call me on skype, 0794968979, south africa, i have been to india more than most of my indian friends, i can connect you with a dear friend of mine in mumbai, effa, she is great, better to call me if you can, or i will email when i ahve more time, you do not have that much time, i think it is best to pick two areas and wander at your own pace, you can always go back, ciao al
i can say to stay away from all meat and also eat street food, its part of the experience but make sure they make it right in front of you, you do not want to eat stuff that has been sitting out , also i would not bother with malaria pills, ok : ) i have never gotten sick , also ahve as many young coconuts as possible, it is anti fungal ( has caprilic acid) also electrolytes
you would be wise not to miss varanasi. in all my travels one of the most surreal places i've been to. goa deserves mention if you like beaches. udaipur is worth a trip. i suggest renting a motorcycle in udaipur which you can do for next to nothing and exploring the surrounding coutryside and villages, one of the highlights of my visit to india. close to udaipur are jaipur and of course agra (both are very tourisy however) but you would be remiss is you visited india and didnt visit the taj majal despite the throngs of tourists, if you go very early in the morning there are few tourists.
Hey Reub -
I'm sure the travel doc will give you good advice . . .
We don't have rifaxamin in Canada so don't know much about it . . . I took the Dukoral oral vaccine for TD (cholera & E coli) even though the efficacy isn't great I thought it would reduce my chances by at least 1/3.
If you do need to treat yourself for TD there is lots of resistance to quinolones - better to bring azithro - 1 g po x 1 or 500 die x 3.
You need your tyhoid vaccine - oral is best - but you need to take it at least 2 weeks before you leave - 4 doses q 48h - it's recommended every three years for the Indian subcontinent.
Malaria is controversial - it will definitely be the safest time of year to travel and you don't need it if you are above 1500 m.
I have been to India three times - always on a 2-week organized tour but small-groups and always in the north but enough off the beaten track to offer you a little advice.
Good timing for India - it should still be relatively cool - even cold at night in the desert or in the mountains.
Haven't been to Mumbai but it's on my list.
If you like South Indian music you should head south first - Goa is worth a visit for the experience but it is touristy - but go to the northern part of Goa, not the south (the big resorts are in the south).
The backwaters of Kerala are supposed to be amazing.
Rajastan is a must - but it's vast - Jaipur, Pushkar - but you can head further west to get further off the beaten track - this is the land of Maharajahs, forts, palaces - and pastel-coloured cities - a few tiger reserves - you would fit it well.
I know that you want to stay away from the temples but the Taj Mahal is very impressive - I had no expectations but was surprised.
I would head east towards Varanassi - again touristed but it is the holiest city on the Ganges and it is worth walking along the wats.
On the way to Varanassi you can take in Orcchla - a bit of an oasis -
Khaujarahau (I always misspell this) - home to the erotic temples - it is really out of the way - the roads have probably improved but it was a 3 hour bumpy road ride in and out the other side.
Calcutta is not worth it - degraded colonial city without the overwhelming destitution I expected
Then there is the north - but it is likely to be cold at that time of year - Dharamshala home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan gov in exile - less touristy than you might expect but not much to see either. Same for Darjeeling. Sikim was more impressive and more to see and more out of the way - but you might need a special visa to get in
Too cold for Kashmir
The trains are good but not always on time.
Might be best to lay out a plan and then change it depending what you find and who you meet along the way.
My buddy Liam (Cced) lives out in Delhi...He's a rock star and if you're in his hood, perhaps he can show you around.
The NGO I stayed with in Kanchipuram (South) is called RIDE and is run by Mr. S. Jeyaraj and Mrs. Britto Jeyaraj. They also have a hostel and run "eco" tours....I use the term "eco" lightly. Here is their contact: "Jeyaraj - RIDE India" firstname.lastname@example.org. They will charge you for a tour...ask them to see some of the following sites: a) rice factory b) appalum factory c) fish farm d) silk worm farm e) weavers at loom (you'll probably have to buy some nice scarves if you go to see this)....
You definitely should go to Saravanabhavan...it's a vegetarian chain in the south...it's totally delicious. There are two in Kanchipuram. A cool area to visit is the Nilgiris hills. You'll need to rent a car and driver to get there but the tea plantations are awesome.
I would make a counterclockwise loop around the subcontinent. Go south after exploring mumbai to goa then kerala. Reach the southern tip and then back up through madras to bengal. From there, you could hit Nepal also for a week - I've been there and it's incredible (absolutely worth extra hassle, etc) but you will need a visa in advance. Then fly to gujarat and rajasthan if you have a chance before returning to delhi.
If you have an idea of when you will need help in Mumbai, I can try to arrange for a family member to look after you / meet you for 1-2 days.
Reuben, I was talking recently with a couple from Hyderabad that said "Leh" is a really beautiful and good place to go in the north. Sounds amazing. If you can, check it out! And of course Benares, since that is a very holy city and one where Joseph Campbell spent a lot of time.
Great to hear from you. So exciting that you will have 6 whole weeks in India. I do have some advice re: motorbiking in India although I did that years and years ago when I was young and naive - I say that only because you are truly taking your life into your own hands riding a motorbike through that country!!!! But good on you if you decide to do that.
I spent 6 months driving through most of India except the very north and the very east - Darjeeling and the east coast. It was an amazing way to see the country but not the most efficient way since going can be very slow next to the efficient train system. If you want to see a lot in 6 weeks (like get to the very north (Ladahk and Daramsala), the far west - Rajasthan, Varanassi and the very south - Karnataka and Kerala and then Goa) then you might consider trains since the distances to cover are pretty great. If you are more after "the process" and just enjoy being on the road, then do the bike. It is a big commitment though since it would take you a few of your days to get set up with a bike and then inevitably there will be some mechanical glitch that will take off a few more of your days where you are stuck in some shitty town trying to not get ripped off as you negotiate for a new piston or some other part. Then you have to find some way to get rid of your bike at the end...
Here are a few little tips off the top of my head:
- As far as I know, there are no bike rental places in India although this might have changed recently since it was at one point a popular way to see India - however, most people decide that if they are going to do part of the country by bike they buy a second-hand one. The "Harley" of India is an Enfield 350 Bullet. Pretty cool and chunky. A hold-over from the British Colonial days. The easiest place to find one would be Goa since most people head down that way to do just that: find a second-hand bike and ride it. I bought mine in Delhi (for $500 cash - I think this is what you can expect to pay - bring US dollars with you in high denominations since you get the most on the black market for $100 US bills - which must be NEW) which was a major mistake since learning how to ride that thing (everything is on the opposite side - clutch, brakes etc) in Delhi traffic was nuts. Also getting the correct paper work was a pain in the ass and took me 2 weeks and lots of bribes to push it though. I believe that the tourists who are buying and selling bikes in Goa will be able to better advise you on that piece. There is a MAJOR tourist market in Goa every week and you will certainly be able to find a bike there. It is like all the dead-heads in the world congregate there... crazy firebreathing pot-smoking hippies but fun. Definitely plan on partying on the beach for a couple of days there... But I digress...
- You do need an international DL and the correct paperwork since you will get pulled over - if you don't have the right stuff the police can charge you whatever they like - worse case scenario take you to jail and who knows what.
- Bring your own helmet as there are no good ones for sale.
- You could also get a new bike custom made for not much more in Madras where the Enfield factory is. They will even make it with custom made panier holders for you to strap your backpack to.
- Keep in mind that the roads in India can be BRUTAL in terms of quality and traffic and that you are the smallest thing on the road which means you have no say. I often found myself in the ditch. The roads in the south (Kerala, Karnataka) are AMAZING to drive through - the ride from Ooty (a hill station otherwise called Ootakamund) which is lush with tea plantations down to the coast, past waterfalls and pristine greenery is like nothing other. The roads in Rajasthan are long and hot. The mornings up north can go down to zero (in the Thar desert in Rajasthan) so you should bring mitts or gloves from home - I had to wear socks on my hands it was so cold - and the afternoons are squelching. Often I couldn't drive more than 200km a day since it was such hard going (my ass was too sore to continue, mainly). This meant that I often found myself in small villages that were between the bigger towns that I couldn't get to and also which didn't have formal hotels. Consequently I often stayed with locals and ended up having many adventures including having most of my stuff stolen from me at one point or another so don't bring anything valuable (this is the same advice for train travel - bring a lock and chain that you can use to lock your backpack to the seat so it doesn't get stolen as you ride on the train). Hence the advantage of planning your route and for the bigger distances, putting your bike on the train (but make sure to LOCK IT or it may get stolen at one of the stops).
- If you decide you are going to bike, bring a pack system that you can just strap onto the back of your bike since as you enter into a town for lunch you will need to take it off your bike each time as you can't leave anything out of sight or it will get stolen. That also means you need to park your bike in a safe compound each night rather than leaving it on the street.
- If you do the bike thing, some highlights for riding are:
Thar desert to Jaisalmer (a must) - in fact all of Rajasthan
Ootacamund (also called Ooty) to the coast of Kerala
The beaches of Goa (Kovalam)
You MUST go to Hampi no matter what (south India)
In fact, most of south India is amazing to bike through and the north is much more difficult due to small narrow winding roads in the far north that you have to compete with transport trucks to stay on and then long stretches of dirty hot road in the middle of the country where there is not much to see....
- Outside of biking, you really ought to get to Varanassi - it is AWESOME. And if you have 1 week where you are looking for something else to do I highly highly recommend Kathmandu, Nepal. It is a 1.5 hour flight over the Himalayas from Delhi and completely worth it. I don't think the flight is very expensive. You can also do a 2-day bus trip from Varanassi but that is VERY painful and a marathon you don't want to sign onto if you don't have to.
I lived in Nepal for a year and worked and traveled everywhere there so let me know if you want more of a down-low about that country. Such a wonderful part of the world. Hope you have a lovely time. I will email you if I think of anything else to tell you.
I happen to love Mumbai. True, it's a dirty, crowded, noisy, ramshackle kind of city. But it has a real edge to it. Your friend should definitely get out of the tourist parts of the city and visit the markets – the thieves market, Crawford market and just some of the regular neighborhood markets. If he's Jewish, I'd also recommend taking a trip to the synagogues in Mumbai and the Konkan villages, where the Bnei Israel hail from. As for places outside Mumbai, the sky's the limit really. I think Dharamsala is something special, but then there's Kerala and Goa and Varanasi and…. Where to begin?
You MUST read:
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I believe it's available for the iphone kindle and the kindle. It's 1300+ pages, so it might be a bit big for a backpack.
The Siege of Krishnapur by Farrell
Fine Balance by Mistry
If I think of any others, I will be sure to send them to you.
I'm SO jealous of your upcoming trip. Before I got knocked up and hitched, I backpacked around Africa, SE Asia, and South America for 22 months. Some day, I'll get back to my nomadic roots.
If you're able to hit Goa, it's best known for its raves and beaches. I can't speak for the raves as I was there last when I was 17 and under strict watch by my parents. Honestly, the beaches are nothing compared to Mexico or anywhere in the Carribbean. However, the culture is unique to India in that it was colonized by the Portuguese, so everyone there is Catholic, speaks English and Portuguese, eats meat, and disregards (to some extent) the extremely oppressive cast system.
Take care, be well, and bring some antibiotics and your own IV supplies. Seriously, bring a couple of 20G angiocaths, some alcohol wipes, a couple sets of gloves, and a set of IV tubing. I've had many friends who have become dehydrated while in India and had to go to the local hospital where everything is reused and recycled.
Enjoy the journey!!!!
I was in India for a month this last October, flew into Kolkata and out of Mumbai. It was incredible and though I've been back a month I still get wistful and nearly teary eyed when i see anything india-related or anyone indian.
I also don't like touristy places, though ended up in some of them, some prompted by very strong recommendations from other both before I left and while there, some because thats just how it worked out. If I had more time I'd structure this rec-email better, but since im a little pressed im just going to run down what i did (since thats all i can really speak to). Maybe ill go in reverse since your flying into mumbai.
a note: before i left, i did the same thing you did-- I emailed everyone with a connection to/who had been to india and got recs. the ones that popped up as must sees over and over were rajasthan and varanasi.
Mumbai: I was there for a week because i got eaten alive by bedbugs on a sleeper bus. so i was kind of effed, physically, while there. nonetheless i really liked the city and if you're a city-person, i'd recommend you take some time to acclimate there and get to know it. I imagine you're bringing some kind of guide book? I had lonely planet and for the most part liked it. Mumbai has some great food. hell everywhere had great food, im finding it hard to accomodate this at all to your food-interest bc i found it delicious everywhere i went. except Hampi but Hampi was awesome. what I did in mumbai was eat, walk around, visit the high court, spent a day people watching on Chowpatty beach until it got dark, saw movies. the slums were fascinating, i chose to do a tour (different people feel differentyl about this) through a non profit that gives $ back to the community in different forms and runs a nursery and education center there. One interesting food experience there is to go to the muslim quarters where they have weird animal organs and parts for consumption. i am vegetarian myself, but went with a carnivorous friend; and, i wanted to try brains, lungs, etc, just to try. Anthony bourdain went there in the episode he went to mumbai. I only saw part of the episode (on my friends ipod, while in the muslim quarter eatery, only saw the part where he is in the muslim quarter eatery. nerds) but you might actually want to watch that epiusode if youre an indian foodie bc im sure all his picks are bomb. he went to mumbai and kolkata i know. I was also in a bollywood film which i found really fun and funny if not torturously itchy (bed bug aftermath) and tiring (night time shoot until 5 am). I got asked to be in one about a minute after getting to mumbai, while walking to my hotel with my backpack. its luck of the draw/pick but if you want to do that, just hang around the main touristy area.
Goa: I wasnt there long enough to know anything. its pretty but I was/am more into india india than goa/vacation india. again though, i was only there a day bc i was too itchy and that is where i discovered my body bite situation
Hampi: Hampi is an awesome place. Its beautiful scenery, huge ass boulders teetering on one another strewn across hills, spots for watering holes you can chill in, TONS of cool old ancient ruins and temples. small place. not a food place. high on the tourism scale. there are 2 sides you can stay on-- the town side, which serves no alcohol and shuts down pretty early, and the "other" side where almost all tourists, majority of whom are hippies and the majority of those of whom are israeli, hang out. you can rent bikes to see the ruins, motorbikes, hike up 20 minutes of stairs to go to a monkey temple which is what is sounds like-- temple overrun with monkeys. pretty sunset opportunities, pretty chill by a lake opportunities, cool ruins opportunities, generally chill place. I stayed at one of the hippie placeso n the other side where my bungalow was $5 or something. while i was in india everyone i met who had been here told me to go.
Bangalore: i ended up in bangalore by accident but i am glad i did. i met some very cool young people and the city had a young, modern vibe to it. we went out and drank beers and it was the closest i felt to being in ny (tho certainly a world away in its own right). lodging is supposedly more expensive, i stayed with a girl there. oh, she is actually a super cute indian girl (i know that was on your list...)
Kerala: south western state. very beautiful and polynesian looking. i actually flew down from the north, rajasthan, to kerala bc it was so highly recommended and read so amazingly. in particular, people take house boats into the backwaters, which are small canals and waterways that weave inland. this was what i really wanted to do. when i got down there though it was hot as balls and the whole thing felt really touristy to me. i heard from ppl who did it it is great, as in youre on a beautiful boat, the service is supposed to be great and the food fantastic on the boats (well, it depends which operator you go with im sure), and its interesting to see the culture in the backwaters. but, unless youre really going to go deep in for a bit, i got the impression you were almost on a line of boats for a lot of the time. this didnt appeal to me so i didnt do it. to escape the heat i did go up to a place called munnar in the mountains= tea plantations. absolutely beautiful, though i only stayed a day bc i wanted to get north. i think there are better hiking opportunities than what i did. my experience of it was more about scenery than immersion into indian culture
Rajasthan: this is probably the most well travelled state in India, which maybe turns you off b/c you are anti-tourism, but its well deserved and i absolutely loved it there. Jaipur is the pink city-- i didnt go there bc i was sick of cities by the time i got there, and heard from a lot of people it was just really congested. I spent a few days in Udaipur, was there for Diwali, and loved it. its a manageable, small city, where i found it easy to meet people-- local and otherwise. my experience there was very much colored by making friends with this lovely indian guy who took me around though. we also went to villages outside the town, which were nice to see. he is actually a tour guide there (i later found out), so im sure you could do the same sort of thing if you wanted. my maybe favorite place i went all trip was a town called Bundi. it was much less touristy than other places in rajasthan, smaller, and has a beautiful old decaying palace and fort that, when i was there, i basically had all to myself to wander around, tons of monkeys everywhere, most of the city is painted arctic blue and there are beautiful blue alleyways to wander around and the whole town had an unspoiled feeling to it, people are genuinely nice and it didnt feel like i was being scammed like a lot of places did. theres also a beautiful waterfall close by where you can go swimming. oh food in bundi wasn't as good though. word of mouth i got was jaipur was disliked by and dissapointing to al ot of people (crowded), jodhpur was really cool and had an awesome fort with an awesome audio guide (but that is tourist for sure), and people liked camel trekking/camping in jaisalmer. those are all big tourist spots, though, be warned. pushkar i got mixed reviews, but sounded overall very very touristy and scammy to me. (so i didnt go).
agra: taj mahal. everyone said i had to see it and i wouldnt be dissapointed. it was stunning but i didnt really care about it. if you're flying out of delhi it makes sense to see it as it's just a day trip
varanasi: intense and awesome. the ghats on the ganges are whirl of activity and religion and devotion and day to day life. the city can be a little sketch, and in the central throughways crowded as shit. the "thing" to do is to take a boat at sunrise, though i personally would recommend you walk along the ghats at sunrise. i did both, and i was just kind of annoyed in the boat at the lack of control, lack of proximity to the things i wanted to see, and i felt like i saw a lot less. i spent an early morning just wandering alone and it was one of my favorite mornings. oh if you go another tip is to try to get up high on a high roof at sunset one day, because (at least when i was there, and i think it had somehting to do with the day heat breaking) the roofs fill up with kids flying kites and people emerging after a hot day and its beautiful
kolkata: this is pretty far east from delhi, so i dont know if youll make it there. i flew into kolkata which was a shock to my system. its super crowded and super busy and super dirty and fascinating and beautiful and so alive. i LOVED the food there. bengali food is delicious and the restaurants i went to in general were awesome and cheap. beautiful old colonial architecture crumbling around you, mini barber station on the street everywhere you look, felt safe. cool throwback 70s style yellow cabs everywhere! (and awful air to go along with them, but thats par for the course)
so those are the main places i was. i hope that was helpful rather than just an indulgent walk down memory lane for me.
in more general tips:
transportation-- the trains are great, though they do fill up. you probably wont be able to get where you want to go the day of, or even the day before , and maybe even the day before that. one tip is that most if not all trains have a "foreign tourist quota" wherein tourists are alloted a number of tickets that are usually available after the train has sold out. you have to go in person to the foreign tourist ticket counter that will be located by the trainstation or closeby (in kolkata it actually took me forever to find). im pretty sure you can only buy a tourist quota ticket from the station from where th ticket leaves from (ie cant buy tourist quota ticket from delhi to mumbai if you're in varanasi). i found this wasn't something i was readily pointed to, but every train station i think has one so good to ask. in terms of classes, most travellers i met travelled in class 2 AC (air conditioning). i travelled basically every class and thought they were all fine. AC gets really cold, and sleeper i actually kind of liked (thats the lowest sleeper class) because the windows are open. its busier, though, and i had a friend get a bag stolen there. but then again i knew someone who got her back stolen in 2 AC. moral of the story: watch your bag! the buses i took were very good, too. a lot of buses you can/need to book in advance, also, mostly the privately operated/nicer buses. but in a pinch i took some government buses which i thought were great. my ass hurt though on some, so maybe bring a pillow of some sort to sit on. internal flights go to limited places but are cheap (a lot around $60). i did get attacked by bed bugs (bites, not in my stuff) on a sleeper bus from hampi and goa, but i think thats just a risk you take on a sleeper bus, i guess.
food: it was so easy to find good food in most places. a lot of my favorite food was the street food. delicious.
while there, in hearing where other people were going/had been, i really wanted to go up north, to lai and ladakh. still do. but it was too cold when i was there and will def be too cold in january, i would think. if you do make it out east to kolkata, its very easy to go up through darjeeling, which looks gorgeous and is supposed to be a different world and very peaceful (though will also be cold) and go up into nepal. people have great things to say about nepal.
other areas i wanted to get to based on word of mouth while there but didnt were pondicherry in the southeast (french influenced coastal town), southern orissa (home to lots of different tribes; i didnt hear of many people going there while i was there, but a friends father highly recommended this, and he has been to india about 20 times), and the andaman islands off the south east coast are supposed ot be heavenly. i met one guy who really liked gujarat, which is the state south of rajasthan and north of mumbai. in particular he totally loved Diu, which is a coastal town. he said it had bomb food and was visually beautiful, portugese inspired. i imagine they get less traffic. outside of mumbai are the ajanta caves that i heard so many people rave about, i didnt make it there. anyway on the spectrum of ruins/sights to see enthusaists i am definitely on the bottom end, and like just being places/immersing than sightseeing. but people really liked them.
oh i liked kolkatas flower market under the bridge to the train station that is not called kolkata (there are 2 in the city; if you go there, thats good to know).
india is incredible. each place was so differnet from one another, they felt like different countries.
i hope this has been helpful and not too long and scattered to be useful. if i think if more general tips ill pass them along. let me know if you have any questions in particular. and have fun! put me in your suitcase!!!
oh and id recommend bringing bug spray. when i didnt use it i got eaten alive, especially in the south where it was sticky.
and bring padlocks. a lot of places i stayed (guest houses, which is usually what the cheap would-be hostel is) didnt have locks, they expected you to have your own lock. also if you like to have it, bring toilet paper bc no bathrooms will have any
and read the book "white tiger"
Anu - Mumbai
Hi Reuben, sorry for the delay - I'm afraid I'm going to give you a girly answer - here are my favorite things to do in Mumbai:
1.Shop - Fab India and Radio House are two famous shopping sites - first has great Indian clothes, fabrics and housewares, second has great Indian music - very close to each other. Also, try out Crawford Market - has a huge variety of stuff, local shoppers, very Bombay experience, interesting to hang out. Any cab driver will know how to get to any of the above.
2. Beach - Chowpatty beach is a cool place to hang out and observe - towards the evening people come down for a stroll - there is a great Kulfi ( icecream) place on the corner under the overpass. Interesting scene on the beach with everything from furtive forbidden lovers to women offering to thread your legs.
3. Hanging Gardens and Tower of Silence - near Chowpatty, Tower of Silence is where bodies are taken to be devoured by vultures, and the Hanging Gardens are less exotic than they sound but overlook the city - evening and early morning the gardens are full of walkers and people doing laughing exercise - great people watching.
4. Cafe Leopold - used to be famous as a good place to get a milkshake and watch the other tourists watching you - now infamous as site of terrorist attacks last year - still a kind of cool hangout.
5. Walk along the Marine Parade waterfront and take a look at the Gateway of India and Taj Hotel.
6. Eat - recommend Indigo ( near Taj ) and for a treat, try Swati ( near Chowpatty ) - safe place to eat all the Indian street food that you probably shouldn't eat on the street. Usually VERY busy - but worth the wait. If you are flying out of Mumbai and finally tired of Indian food, Crossword, also in the Chowpatty area, is a great bookstore with cafe that does really good coffee, pastries and grilled cheese sandwiches. Great place to pick up book for flight home
7. See a Bollywood movie at Regal.
8. Stop by Jehangir Art Gallery next to Prince of Wales Museum for snack and maybe a good exhibition. Take a stroll around Victoria Terminus ( main railway station - very very Indian scene) - all in central Bombay
9. get a cab driver to take you to Fashion Street (central Bombay) - rows upon rows of clothing stalls and some neat book stalls too - interesting stroll and study in human persistence
ok, that's it for now - will email again if anything else crosses my mind. Have a great time! and good luck! :) would love to hear about it when you return.